Baltimore has had numerous depictions on film and TV, ranging from The Silence of the Lambs to The Wire. But in Hairspray, it’s a city overrun not with serial killers or drug dealers, but with dancers.
Set in 1962, this musical comedy follows the dance-obsessed Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a chubby and chirpy high school student who catches her big break on a teenage dancing TV show and sparks a civil rights movement in the process.
Based on John Waters’ 1988 classic, this 2007 remake benefits from a great cast having great fun, most notably John Travolta as Tracy’s endearing mother. This stems from the original, in which the role was played by Waters’ friend and muse Divine, but it’s still extremely rare for an actor to play someone of the opposite sex, and the results are enormously enjoyable. Travolta is still an excellent dancer at 53 and in a fat suit, inhabiting the role with impressive energy. His/her husband is played by Pulp Fiction co-star Christopher Walken, whose unique comic talents and celebrated dancing abilities make this one of the best movie couples around. Nikki Blonsky completes this hugely likeable family with infectious warmth and a remarkable resemblance to John Travolta’s character. Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Marsden help ensure that there’s not a weak link in the cast, not even Zac Efron.
By nature of being a musical, the film is fairly predictable and not at all subtle, but the strong liberal themes and subversive genre parodies let Hairspray off the hook. The monumental cultural shift of 1960s America is joyously represented in an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of being different, whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, old or young, fat or thin. It’s a bit like X-Men, right down to James Marsden, but with more songs. And the songs are wonderfully catchy, particularly Good Morning Baltimore and You Can’t Stop the Beat.
Colourful, vibrant and diverse, Hairspray is infectiously upbeat from start to finish. It’s certainly not one of those downbeat musicals, like Les Miserablah. Packed with nice performances, jokes and songs, it’s an out-there, feel-good movie with a big heart and plenty of soul.